vol. 6 Boundless

Credit: Aaina Sharma

01 / 02

Aaina Sharma:
"Photography, it's my way of being inspired and exploring something from my own viewpoint."

Design Leader & Photographer & Dog-Lover

A conversation about starting a newsletter, searching for inspiration, getting to know your mental health, and taking the world as your oyster


Jan 13, 2022 | As told to Cherie Yang & edited by Aidan McGrath

Aaina’s journey is best described as a series of sojourns—from New Delhi to San Fransisco to London—with something collected at each stop: a passion for photography here, a deeper understanding of mental health there, and all along which there has been one underlying message: take the world as your oyster.

One of the key topics of our conversation was inspiration: what inspiration means, how to capture it, and—sometimes—what to do when it’s just not there.

For Aaina, mental health and inspiration go hand in hand—her passion for photography provides a map of her mental health from day to day, telling her when she needs to rest, and take a break.

We also chat about her love of graphic—and then product—design, and her journey all the way from discovering InDesign in high school, to her current role in design leadership.

Finally, our conversation covers her current project, Dear Genie: how it began, finding inspiration to write, and how it helped her deal with the emotions of losing a loved one.

Find Aaina on Instagram or her website. Learn more about Dear Genie.

  • Creativity was always encouraged in my household, so it was a really interesting way to grow up. “The world was your oyster” was the messaging that I got, so that was really liberating and exciting. I could explore whatever I wanted to do.
  • &: Let’s start at the beginning... Where did you grow up and what do you remember of it?

    AS:

    I grew up in a very small town near New Delhi in India. I lived there until I was about fourteen and then I moved to the Bay Area. My upbringing was typically Indian in the sense of the food, the friends, the school life.

    Creativity was always encouraged in my household, so it was a really interesting way to grow up. “The world was your oyster” was the messaging that I got, so that was really liberating and exciting. I could explore whatever I wanted to do.

    I remember doing a lot of doodling, painting, and chalk art as a very young kid. I mean, I didn't know what lettering was at the time, but that's what I was trying to do.

  • That's when I got interested in design because I was in InDesign almost every day doing layouts, and I wanted to explore it further. That's when I really got interested in finding out more about design, and specifically print design and graphic design.
  • &: What was moving to the Bay Area like?

    AS:

    When we moved to the Bay Area near San Francisco, I began going to high school and that was a whole new experience. As you can imagine, coming from a different country with a completely different background, it was intimidating. I’d watched those movies about high school in America and I didn't know what to expect. [laughs]

    Luckily, all my classmates were really nice and welcoming, so I think I lucked out there.

    I got interested in a lot of creative things in high school, including photography. I was in a yearbook class and that's when I was like, this is actually a lot of fun. I was put on layout duty, so I was doing a lot of photography and layout for the yearbook in my junior year.

    That's when I got interested in design because I was in InDesign almost every day doing layouts, and I wanted to explore it further. That's when I really got interested in finding out more about design, and specifically print design and graphic design.

  • It didn't feel like school in the typical sense of going into university to go to classes, I felt like I was just having fun...
  • San Francisco, taken by Aaina. Credit: @aaina via Instagram

  • &: I read that you studied graphic design at the San Francisco Academy of Art. What was that experience like?

    AS:

    I love San Francisco so much. I used to visit San Francisco with my family every once in a while and it was a fascinating city. It's small enough so it feels very homey and small, but still has this big larger than life vibe to it—at least it did back then back when I was 16 years old. [laughs]

    I visited the Academy of Art to explore what my options were. I wanted to explore Parsons and a few other universities, but the Academy of Art really stood out to me.

    I wanted to go into graphic arts and the programme there was amazing. I talked to a few teachers, did a little tour, and fell in love with everything that I saw. I could not wait to get started.

    It didn't feel like school in the typical sense of going into university to go to classes, I felt like I was just having fun. A lot of my friends who went to other schools would talk about their classes and I could really tell that my experience was drastically different from theirs in terms of the practical knowledge that I was getting.

    That was one of the things that drew me to the Academy of Art: they really lean on designers who have their design practices, and bring them on as faculty. You get that real life practical experience of what it’s like to run a design agency and how to talk to clients, which I don't think a lot of universities or colleges necessarily offer.

  • I think I leaned on the mindset of, “I'm just gonna find creative things to do and not worry about those cultural differences.” At the age of fourteen, everything is confusing anyway. My coping mechanism was to see what I could do in terms of learning different languages and being part of all of these clubs.
  • &: You’ve always loved the creative arts, even since you were a child. When did you realize that you wanted to pursue that as your career?

    AS:

    In high school, because I was exploring so many different creative directions.

    I was in journalism class, photography class, and involved in the yearbook. I would do anything creative that I could find.

    If I reflect back, there were a lot of cultural nuances that I didn't know about, because I was coming from a completely different country and coming into this culture where everything's done differently.

    I think I leaned on the mindset of, “I'm just gonna find creative things to do and not worry about those cultural differences.” At the age of fourteen, everything is confusing anyway. My coping mechanism was to see what I could do in terms of learning different languages and being part of all of these clubs.

    That's when I was sure that I have to make this my career somehow. I was exploring journalism, which I felt was creative, but then I discovered the visual part of the creative industry and that's when the light bulb went off.

  • A lot of those ideas that I had in my mind of what I could do when I was fifteen or sixteen years old have actually come true, which I'm extremely fortunate for because that usually doesn't happen.
  • &: Do you still have any of those creative influences from high school?

    AS:

    Even now, I'm a huge fan of photography.

    I am an amateur photographer, definitely not professional in any way, but I've kept that going.

    A lot of those ideas that I had in my mind of what I could do when I was fifteen or sixteen years old have actually come true, which I'm extremely fortunate for because that usually doesn't happen.

    I've taken my career in a different direction now in terms of being more of a design leader, but that has some different creative challenges.

    I feel extremely fortunate that I've been able to carry this through.

  • The messaging that I got from my parents was that the world is your oyster, so I never had that limitation of, “don't go into this because you're not gonna be able to sustain yourself” or “you're not going to be able to make a certain amount of money.” For me, it was, “I will figure it out.”
  • &: Were you at all apprehensive about making a career out of something that you love so much?

    AS:

    The messaging that I got from my parents was that the world is your oyster, so I never had that limitation of, “don't go into this because you're not gonna be able to sustain yourself” or “you're not going to be able to make a certain amount of money.” For me, it was, “I will figure it out.”

    I think I was very naive at the time. [laughs]

    I didn't know what graphic design was at all until I came across the Academy of Art. I was like, “bingo, I didn't even know this existed.”

    I will say, in all honesty, I was never apprehensive about it because it never crossed my mind to be.

  • Aaina and her family. Credit: @aaina via Instagram

  • &: Was your family a family of creatives?

    AS:

    Not really, honestly.

    My dad is an accountant, so he was quite the opposite. He was creative with numbers, but you can only be so creative with numbers. [laughs] He was always very encouraging about me choosing my own path, though.

    My mum is very creative. She has had a few different careers, and at the age of fifty she decided to go to school to become an aesthetician, which is incredible. She's such a huge inspiration. She always had that creative side to her. She had side businesses that I saw growing up, so I always got the example that you could pick something up and just do it from her, so that's been a huge inspiration.

  • Since then, my brother's always tinkered with something or the other on the side. I think that gave me the spirit of, ‘always keep doing something.’ It's exciting.
  • &: What about your brother?

    AS:

    My brother and I started a Bollywood website when we had first moved to the US, when I was about fourteen.

    It was basically all of the content we could find, rehashed and rewritten and presented in a very different light. That was another place where I saw that you can come up with an idea and just do it.

    Since then, my brother's always tinkered with something or the other on the side. I think that gave me the spirit of, ‘always keep doing something.’ It's exciting.

  • I feel fortunate that I wasn't thrown into a path that I didn't feel passionate about, because if I was doing anything else I feel that I would have to backtrack a little bit and rethink my life a little bit.
  • &: Do you see that as being quite unusual amongst immigrant families coming from Asia?

    AS:

    Absolutely.

    I thought it was a normal thing back when I was growing up. But talking to a lot of my friends whose parents were pushing them into medicine or law or engineering, I found that there are those kinds of stereotypes.

    Even with my brother, for example, things were quite different for him. It could be that I always showed signals of being creative, so my parents knew that I was obviously going to become a creative person.

    I feel fortunate that I wasn't thrown into a path that I didn't feel passionate about, because if I was doing anything else I feel that I would have to backtrack a little bit and rethink my life a little bit.

    I didn't recognise it then, but reflecting back on it years later, I'm like, “Thank you, mum and dad!”

  • So much. The biggest thing for me about photography is capturing that one moment in time. That one moment is there for you to admire for the rest of your life, which is pretty incredible.
  • I normally don't take photos unless I feel inspired—so on the days I don't take photos, I know that I'm not inspired inside...
  • &: I want to talk a little bit more about photography. That's something that you've been doing for a long time. I guess you can say it’s one of your first loves. What do you love most about photography?

    AS:

    So much.

    In this fast paced world nowadays, you don't get opportunities to slow down and admire something in front of you as much as people probably used to, fifty years ago.

    The other thing is that you can capture so many emotions in one shot. If somebody were to look at a photo that was really well crafted and the composition was perfect, you can dissect so much from that one snapshot. That's a pretty exciting challenge to have.

    I always think of photography as a challenge and that's what gets me excited.

    I normally don't take photos unless I feel inspired—so on the days I don't take photos, I know that I'm not inspired inside. If that happens too many days in a row then I know that there's something wrong within me, that my mental health is affected in some way. Photography is a big, big thing for me in that way.

    Music is another thing. If I don't feel like listening to music for a few days, I know there's something wrong and I need to fix it.

  • Positano, Italy, taken by Aaina. Credit: @aaina via Instagram

  • &: On your Instagram, you've got a hashtag for your travel photography called #sojournym. What does that mean?

    AS:

    It was something that I created many years ago, because I started traveling a lot and wanted to give my photographs an identity.

    Sojourn is a word centered around traveling, so everything around that word was already in existence.

    There's that risk that anybody could use that word—it's not proprietary to me— so I decided to make up a word and added the Y and M to it! [laughs]

  • We moved about four years ago. My husband and I had been in the Bay Area for a long time...
  • A London phone box. Credit: @aaina via Instagram

  • &: Speaking about travelling, when did you move from the US to London and what prompted that?

    AS:

    We moved about four years ago. My husband and I had been in the Bay Area for a long time. I had been there for sixteen years and he'd been there for fourteen years, and we were looking for someplace new to explore.

    We love Europe and we thought—we know the Asian culture quite well as we’re from that part of the world; we've explored the US quite a bit as we’ve lived in California for a long time—so we wanted to explore a very different side of the world.

    We’ve now lived in three very distinct cultures, which is great.

    Also, I was a bit jaded by the constant need to talk about technology and acquisitions and raising funding rounds. I think that's great—the Silicon Valley and Bay Area are all about that—but I was a bit tired of that.

    I wanted a change of pace where people talk about something different and the work-life culture is very different.

    It's been four years now, and we love it here in London.

  • I've been moving around so much that I've lost that sense of definitive identity: ‘this is who I am, this is where I belong,’ and I quite enjoy it to be honest with you.
  • &: Where do you call home now?

    AS:

    That’s a very good question. Home is London now, but we are actually moving back to the Bay Area later this year! So I've now started thinking about home as being closer to family and friends.

    Where I grew up, that doesn't feel like home anymore. When I go back to visit, it feels foreign. I don't relate to the culture as much as I used to. Even though London is home right now, that also feels foreign because all of our friends and family are in the Bay Area.

    I've been moving around so much that I've lost that sense of definitive identity: ‘this is who I am, this is where I belong,’ and I quite enjoy it to be honest with you.

    I don't really need to feel like I belong in one place. I can belong in multiple places, which is great.

  • For me, the entire end-to-end user journey has to have a touch point that relates to design. Branding doesn't only mean a logo or a website or a brochure that you see. It’s the way a salesperson or anybody on the team talks about the company. That is branding, that's part of the brand.
  • &: You started your design career with roots in graphic design, and you talked earlier about your progression into being a design leader. What does being a design leader mean to you?

    AS:

    Design leadership to me is, first of all, making a case for why there needs to be a presence of design within a company, within an industry, and within an organization.

    That was my first order of business when I joined HelloSign back in San Francisco, and now Unmind in London. My job is to make a case for why design is one of the most important things that we should be focusing on as a company.

    The second thing would be to embed design into every single touch point. I come from a branding background, but I moved into product design and then into leadership, so I understand both the worlds quite well: the user experience side of things, as well as the branding side of things.

    For me, the entire end-to-end user journey has to have a touch point that relates to design. Branding doesn't only mean a logo or a website or a brochure that you see. It’s the way a salesperson or anybody on the team talks about the company. That is branding, that's part of the brand.

    Spreading that message across to the leadership team and having that as firm messaging to the company is very important to me.

    There are also more tactile things like building up the team and making sure the team feels supported on a daily basis. All of that is extremely important as well.

  • &: From branding to product design: how did that move come about?

    AS:

    My first job as a visual designer was at Zendesk, which was a relatively small start-up back then.

    I was working on the brand side and I would talk regularly to my product design colleagues and became interested in what they were doing. I attended a few user research sessions to understand how users were perceiving our brand and our product, and that’s when my interest really grew. I was trying to understand what product design was and how product designers worked.

  • It was more about working on projects. I did my own side projects. I'd redesign certain user experiences on my own and show them to friends, asking for feedback.
  • &: When you moved into product design, did that come intuitively to you?

    AS:

    It took a lot of learning in the beginning.

    I knew I was interested in it, but I didn't know if it was something that I wanted to explore seriously or not. I talked to a lot of product designers and people who had made a similar transition to me. At that point, ten years ago, there wasn't too much in the way of formal education around user experience design, so it was a lot of figuring things out along the way.

    It was more about working on projects. I did my own side projects. I'd redesign certain user experiences on my own and show them to friends, asking for feedback.

    I slowly started learning what the process looks like. It took some time to get there, but I had the support internally within the company to be able to explore, so that was extremely helpful.

  • With product design, it was quite the opposite. It was all about that iterative process of, ‘learn something from the users, apply it to your designs, see how it performs and then do the whole thing over again.’
  • I still say that branding is at the heart of what I do. I love it, so that’s why I do side projects. Part of the reason is that I get to explore that side of my roots.
  • &: What did you find interesting about product design?

    AS:

    One thing that I found really interesting was the difference between branding and user experience design.

    With branding, a lot of it was very art based and very opinion-based. If I put a poster out there, it was a case of: great if the users or the consumers like it, too bad if they don’t. There wasn't an iterative process, necessarily.

    With product design, it was quite the opposite. It was all about that iterative process of, ‘learn something from the users, apply it to your designs, see how it performs and then do the whole thing over again.’

    You actually take control in your hands as a designer, as a product manager, as an engineer to iterate on it constantly.

    That's when I started really enjoying UX. I asked my manager if I could take on some product related projects, and he was incredibly supportive.

    I remember there was an onboarding project that I took on. It was very much at the cusp of the branding world and the product world. From there it was obvious to me that that's something I wanted to explore.

    I still say that branding is at the heart of what I do. I love it, so that’s why I do side projects. Part of the reason is that I get to explore that side of my roots.

  • This is going to sound very harsh, but I don't necessarily care about opinions there. It is very much an art form for me.
  • &: You mentioned that branding is an artistic process, whilst product design is more iterative. What about photography?

    AS:

    This is going to sound very harsh, but I don't necessarily care about opinions there. It is very much an art form for me.

    I put something out there because it resonates with me. If it resonates with others, great. If it doesn't, that's fine too.

    Anything that has business goals attached to it automatically becomes something that has research backing it up and data science. There's a lot to it.

    But with something like photography, it's my way of being inspired and exploring something from my own viewpoint.

    That's how I see a lot of my favorite photographers, just exploring their own points of view, and that's how I see photography.

  • The Eiffel Tower. Credit: @aaina via Instagram

  • &: What kind of photography do you enjoy?

    AS:

    I love any type of street photography, whether that's photographing architecture or even people. I'm slowly getting into people photography, I find it a bit intrusive so I tried not to go that way, but it can be pretty exciting to shoot people as well.

    This is why I love traveling as well. Going to places, shooting architecture and other elements of that place and presenting your own viewpoint. Even shooting Paris, which has been shot millions of times, your perspective can be that unique perspective. It's pretty exciting.

  • Putting photos up on a platform like Unsplash and giving people access to it means that the photos live on and people can use them in different contexts, and that's exciting to me.
  • &: Do you share your photography online? What does that mean to you?

    AS:

    I have a bunch of my photography on Unsplash. I love the comments that I get on there, as well as people using the photos. If they were just sitting in my hard drive it would be a very sad thing.

    Putting photos up on a platform like Unsplash and giving people access to it means that the photos live on and people can use them in different contexts, and that's exciting to me.

    It's not about the number of likes or anything - it's when I get comments from friends saying, ‘oh, that was really cool, I loved how you captured that thing.’ It makes me feel appreciated and excited.

  • Inspiration for me is feeling excited about something and wanting to take it forward, whether that's something as simple as getting up and listening to some music or working on a big project that absolutely needs to be done, breathing some inspiration into it and getting excited about it.
  • &: You talked about getting inspired. What does inspiration mean to you?

    AS:

    Inspiration for me is feeling excited about something and wanting to take it forward, whether that's something as simple as getting up and listening to some music or working on a big project that absolutely needs to be done, breathing some inspiration into it and getting excited about it.

    There are times when I'm really interested and I'll take a lunch break and go out and photograph things, versus there are days when I don't feel like it.

    I can see it when there are those really inspiring days. When that happens I can see that translate through to my work, to my life, to everything throughout the day.

    It's very binary for me. When it's the opposite, it's the opposite in all of those areas. I feel stuck that day, and I hope that tomorrow is different. If I'm feeling like that for multiple days in a row, that's usually a red flag that I need to make some changes.

    I've now implemented some coping strategies around that. I try to meditate more often. There are still days when I'm stuck, and that's fine. I'll do admin tasks and things that don't necessarily need a lot of inspiration.

  • I never pick my clothes the night before, because I want my fashion choices for that day to relate to how I'm feeling on that day...
  • Sometimes it'll happen multiple days in a row and that's when I know that I need to really do something...
  • &: How do you recognise those telltale signs?

    AS:

    Fashion is a big part of it.

    I never pick my clothes the night before, because I want my fashion choices for that day to relate to how I'm feeling on that day.

    If I'm wearing something big, heavy, and black, I'm in a receded mode and want to be by myself and introverted that day. If I'm wearing something colourful, I know that I want to go and be a little more out there, so that's usually my first sign.

    Another thing is that I'm very much a morning person. I'll wake up between 5:30 and 6 am, and I don't need coffee, I'm just ready to go.

    Most days, I’ll make my to-do list and get ready to go in and drop my son off to nursery in the morning. I get 45 minutes of walking in the morning, so that walk is my indicator of whether or not I feel energised. If I am, I take photos sometimes in those 45 minutes along the route.

    Then there are days when I can't wait to be over with the morning routine and dive straight into work.

    For me, it's very clear.

    Sometimes it'll happen multiple days in a row and that's when I know that I need to really do something. Two weeks ago, I took a whole week off. In this pandemic world, we’re dealing with a lot of burnout and dealing with mental health issues, so that was amazing. Coming back into work and feeling that I have my fire back and I can go again was a great feeling.

Mental Health & Burnout

Recognising the signs

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  • Colour is a big one. That's the most obvious one. If I'm wearing something super bright, it makes me feel brighter and lighter and happier.
  • &: Fashion is one of the earliest markers in your day of how you’re feeling. Is it colours? Is it materials? What is it that symbolises how you feel?

    AS:

    Colour is a big one. That's the most obvious one. If I'm wearing something super bright, it makes me feel brighter and lighter and happier.

    Another thing is whether an outfit looks well put together to me.

    Sometimes, I’ll throw on a sweatshirt and call it a day and not put a lot of effort into it because I can't be bothered.

    Other days, I’m accessorised, put together, look a lot more polished, which is always nice. With a toddler, that becomes increasingly difficult to find the time to do, but I still try. [laughs]

  • It's an art form for me. I think with fashion, it's about expressing myself more than how it resonates with others. I dress for myself.
  • &: What colours do you have in your wardrobe? Is it the whole rainbow?

    AS:

    It is pretty much the whole rainbow. I don't do too many super bright fluorescent ones, there's a lot of pastels and stuff.

    It's a whole gamut - I've never subscribed to the idea of ‘this color doesn't look good on me.’

    Again, that could be being naive, that's fine. [laughs]

    It's an art form for me. I think with fashion, it's about expressing myself more than how it resonates with others. I dress for myself.

  • I think when I fell into a proper routine and also got more self-aware of what a good successful day looks like versus a not-so-successful one, I started to recognize that. Even then, it wasn't crystal clear to me what was going on. It was like, ‘some days are great, why can't every day be like that’. That's when I realised where mental health comes in.
  • &: Have you always been able to recognise those signs, or is it a more recent discovery?

    AS:

    It happened a little bit later on, probably in my mid-twenties. That’s when I got into the routine of going into work.

    I think when I fell into a proper routine and also got more self-aware of what a good successful day looks like versus a not-so-successful one, I started to recognize that. Even then, it wasn't crystal clear to me what was going on. It was like, ‘some days are great, why can't every day be like that’. That's when I realised where mental health comes in.

    Mental health is not a topic that we necessarily talk about, especially in Asian cultures. I did not grow up with that understanding of what mental health means and that mental health is something that we have all the time.

    It has a certain taboo and stigma attached to it. It was when I started exploring some of these subjects with my friends that everything started clicking, but I wish it had come sooner.

  • At the same time, I am also somebody who likes change. It's a weird dichotomy for me...
  • &: You talked about routines a lot. Are you a big routine person?

    AS:

    I'm a big routines person. If I have that routine, I really thrive in carrying that through.

    At the same time, I am also somebody who likes change. It's a weird dichotomy for me. Some days if it [my routine] is thrown off, I actually welcome it. You don't want to be stuck in the same rut and same routine every single day.

    As much as I love routines, there are times when I do things differently. I'll sleep in some days and it's fine. No big deal.

  • &: What happens when your routines get messed up?

    AS:

    There are days when things don't go the way you want in a negative sequence, and that's when you have to practice that inner calm and tell yourself that everything's going to be fine. I used to get very anxious about it, but now I’ll stay calm and see how things go, and usually they turn out fine.

  • The world sees it in a way that puts a lot of stigma to it and in a very negative light, where a lot of the imagery is centered around this black and white imagery of somebody holding their head in their hands, sitting in the corner of a room. That's not necessarily what mental health looks like. It's very much about celebrating the most complex organ in our bodies, which is our brain.
  • &: You work at Unmind now. Did your awareness of mental health come prior to Unmind, or was it something you learned more about through your job?

    AS:

    My awareness came before Unmind, but not in the same way as what I've learned in the past four years.

    I never gave it that much thought. I knew mental health needed to be nurtured and cared for, but I didn't exactly know the mechanisms around it.

    Unmind has accelerated that thinking for me, and now I'm a huge proponent of mental health practices. Being more proactive and preventative about it, as opposed to reactive, which is how the world really sees mental health.

    The world sees it in a way that puts a lot of stigma to it and in a very negative light, where a lot of the imagery is centered around this black and white imagery of somebody holding their head in their hands, sitting in the corner of a room. That's not necessarily what mental health looks like. It's very much about celebrating the most complex organ in our bodies, which is our brain.

    We often make this argument that we go to the gym to take care of our physical health all of the time in that preventative and proactive way, yet we don't do that with our brains. A lot of that awareness came much later and I'm so glad. It's going to stick with me for the rest of my life.

  • At that time there was a lot of talk around why social events in start-ups centred around alcohol. It's still a huge thing. For me, it was a very simple idea. What if there were social events that were centred around these drinks that I have come up with?
  • &: And finally, let’s talk about your side projects which you’ve alluded to above. I read about Neem. Can you tell me about that?

    AS:

    When I was still at HelloSign, I decided that I wanted to bring Indian drinks to the world. Coming from an Indian background, I always loved chai and lassi. There are so many interesting Indian drinks out there.

    At that time there was a lot of talk around why social events in start-ups centred around alcohol. It's still a huge thing. For me, it was a very simple idea. What if there were social events that were centred around these drinks that I have come up with?

    It was this one-person operation. It was absolutely insane. I would find myself awake at three o'clock in the morning, making the product, marketing it, being the support person, doing everything on my own. But it was a great learning experience.

    I did it for a little over a year and a half and then we decided to move to London right after.

    I felt good about it because I didn't have any resentment or any regret around it. I tried it, I did what I wanted to do and got it out of the system.

  • Aaina and Genie. Credit: @aaina via Instagram

  • &: What about DearGenie, your newsletter? I know that it's named after your dog who sadly passed away this year.

    AS:

    It's been an incredibly difficult year, generally speaking, and then Genie... She's our first child, that's how we usually introduce her, and she was so close to us.

    She was with us for ten and a half years and she was our everything—our entire lives focused around her. We planned our travels around whether she was coming with us.

    She started not feeling too well in January, and we had to say goodbye to her in April. It was extremely difficult, to say the least.

    I didn't, at that moment, know what to do to get out of that feeling of helplessness. It made both my husband and I rethink a lot of things in life because her loss was pretty immense.

  • My thinking was that I've been a dog owner, I grew up with dogs, I've been a mum to Genie for the past ten years and I've learned so much from that experience. What can I give to the world from that experience?
  • The last thing was honouring Genie. My biggest fear was that we're going to forget her. I don't think that's ever possible, but I wanted to hold onto her and her memory, and so this is a good way for us to do that.
  • &: I’m so sorry to hear that. After that happened, how did the newsletter come about?

    AS:

    It was more about figuring out how to channel all of this negativity and helplessness I was feeling into something positive and productive.

    I thought about what I could be doing, and I sketched up a lot of different things that revolved around rescue dogs and shelters.

    I still want to do some of those things that I've planned out, but they're long-term projects and they're not going to happen overnight.

    My thinking was that I've been a dog owner, I grew up with dogs, I've been a mum to Genie for the past ten years and I've learned so much from that experience. What can I give to the world from that experience?

    I was approaching this from a perspective of: I'm not the authority; I'm not a dog trainer; I'm not a vet. But I have had this amazing pup and I’ve been fortunate enough to have her in my life and all the learnings from that I can share with others, and also learn a bit about other people's experiences along the way.

    The shortest route to getting something out there was a newsletter. I thought it was a very effective way to put something out.

    The last thing was honouring Genie. My biggest fear was that we're going to forget her. I don't think that's ever possible, but I wanted to hold onto her and her memory, and so this is a good way for us to do that.

    It's been an emotional process for sure.

  • It's a really great way for me to learn more as well and inject my own experience into it and share it with the world. I didn't want all that we've done to sit in my head and me to mull over it and feel helpless.
  • &: What is your schedule like, running DearGenie?

    AS:

    Every other week I send out a newsletter that has different sections and there's a theme to every newsletter. I talk about house-training dogs; I talk about life after lockdown with your dog, which is especially relevant for all of those who got dogs in the last 18 months.

    It's a really great way for me to learn more as well and inject my own experience into it and share it with the world. I didn't want all that we've done to sit in my head and me to mull over it and feel helpless.

    I have received some comments in the last few months saying, “Keep going, this is great and I've found value in this.” It's a great way to build a community around something that I love and feel strongly above.

  • Now I have a running list. Every time I have an idea, I'll log it and make some notes, which makes my life easier. There are times that I’ve run out of inspiration or ideas for a particular issue, but that's when research comes into play and I find other ways to cope with it.
  • &: Just hearing you speak about it, I’m getting so emotional. Writing a newsletter is a pretty big undertaking. Do you ever not feel inspired when you need to write?

    AS:

    Absolutely, and that's when a change of scene comes in. This is something that I do feel sometimes, because of having a full-time job, having a toddler at home and everything else that's going on. It is difficult to put this on the priority list.

    Over the weekends, I'll have a change of scene, like I may go to a café.

    It doesn't take more than two to three hours to put an issue together. It's more about finding that motivation to think of new, interesting ideas.

    Now I have a running list. Every time I have an idea, I'll log it and make some notes, which makes my life easier. There are times that I’ve run out of inspiration or ideas for a particular issue, but that's when research comes into play and I find other ways to cope with it.

    It doesn't happen too often. I’m usually pretty motivated about sending the newsletter out.

  • I want to approach this with that sense of curiosity. A friend of mine gave me the advice to approach it with that curiosity and some authority...
  • &: You’re definitely a designer. Do you consider yourself a writer?

    AS:

    No, I don't.

    I'm slowly getting into it. When I started taking some of those creative writing and journalism classes in school and at the Academy of Art, I thought I was good at it, but then I saw other people in my class and it was mind-blowing. People around me were so much more talented.

    It was more of an awakening that I'm really good with visuals, and I can confidently say that. But with words, I still have a long way to go.

    I want to approach this with that sense of curiosity. A friend of mine gave me the advice to approach it with that curiosity and some authority. It's not about being an authority figure in this industry. It's about writing what comes from the heart and your shared experience. That's what I try to do.

    I'm still learning a lot about writing, about words, about editing paragraphs in a way that is engaging. Sometimes I tend to go on and on. [laughs]

  • I would say so. I need to be in a place where it's comfortable, it's exciting, it's inspiring. This is why I surround myself with things that excite me and inspire me.
  • &: Are your physical conditions the same when you're writing versus when you’re doing visual design?

    AS:

    I would say so. I need to be in a place where it's comfortable, it's exciting, it's inspiring. This is why I surround myself with things that excite me and inspire me.

    Now, everything has gone digital, but I do have a notebook where I try to write as much as I can on a piece of paper, and that helps as well. I love the art of actually writing.

    I have a selection of ten different types of pens. I’ve always been fascinated by stationery, so I’ll pick a different pen to write with. [laughs]

    Anything that gets you excited, right?

  • There's only so much time in the day, so I have to be very specific with what I'm doing and how I'm doing it.
  • &: To finish off, do you have any other side projects that you're working on?

    AS:

    No, with DearGenie and with my day job, that’s quite a bit. [laughs]

    I would like to do a lot more with DearGenie, and I'm constantly thinking about what else and how else I can make that happen.

    There's only so much time in the day, so I have to be very specific with what I'm doing and how I'm doing it.

    For the time being, no, but if I do explore anything further, it will be DearGenie.

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Stephanie Purcell

I always say I'll try it at least once. If I like it, I'll continue with it. If not, then I'll try something else.

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